What Happens if I’m Charged with Domestic Violence for the First Time in California?
Being arrested and charged with domestic violence can feel like your whole world is crashing down. Even if it’s your first offense, these allegations have severe consequences that can impact your freedom, family, and future.
As experienced domestic violence attorneys who have handled hundreds of domestic violence cases in California, we know this is an incredibly stressful and uncertain time.
Our goal is to guide you through the process so you understand what to expect at each stage. With an aggressive legal defense strategy tailored to the unique circumstances of your case, many first-time domestic violence charges can be reduced or even dismissed.
Domestic Violence Charges in California
California law defines domestic violence broadly as abuse committed against a spouse, cohabitant, dating partner, or anyone you have a close relationship with. It covers a wide range of actions like hitting, shoving, threats, and other behaviors intended to control, isolate, or cause fear.
Common charges include:
- Battery – any form of physical abuse or violence, such as hitting, punching, slapping, pushing, grabbing, etc. This can range from misdemeanor simple battery to felony domestic violence, depending on injuries and circumstances.
- Criminal threats – making threats to seriously harm or kill the victim, even without physical violence. Charges depend on the specifics of the threat.
- False imprisonment – restricting someone’s movements against their will. For example, blocking an exit.
- Harassment, stalking, violating a protective order.
Domestic violence charges can be filed as misdemeanors or felonies under California law, depending on the specific circumstances of the alleged abuse.
Factors that lead to more serious felony charges include:
- Causing major injuries like broken bones, losing consciousness
- Using weapons or dangerous objects
- Prior domestic violence criminal history
- Violating an active protective order
Arrest and Booking Process After a Domestic Violence Call
When police respond to a domestic violence call, their first priority is separating the parties involved and investigating what happened. If they have probable cause to believe abuse occurred, they will make an arrest, often on the spot.
After arrest, you’ll be searched and transported to the local jail to be photographed, fingerprinted, and booked on charges. Within 48 hours, you’ll go before a judge who will be informed of the allegations against you. This is when bail or release from custody will be determined.
Getting Out of Jail After a DV Arrest
For first-time domestic violence offenses that did not cause serious injury, you may be eligible for release in a few ways:
- Posting bail – paying a bail bonds company to post your bail amount with the court so you can be released, pending trial. Bail amounts depend on the severity of the charges.
- Released on own recognizance – the judge determines you’re low risk for not appearing in court and releases you without posting bail, as long as you agree to show up to all court dates.
- Bail hearing – your criminal defense attorney can argue for lower or no bail based on factors like your lack of criminal history, strong family ties to the area, and other mitigating circumstances.
No matter how you get released from custody, expect the court to issue a criminal protective order barring you from contacting the alleged victim. Never violate this order.
First Court Appearance and Arraignment
Within a few weeks of your arrest, you’ll appear before a judge for an arraignment hearing. This is where formal charges are presented and you will enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Typically, a not-guilty initial plea allows time to build your defense strategy, so don’t feel rushed into any plea.
Plea Bargaining in Domestic Violence Cases
Many first-time domestic violence charges are resolved through plea bargaining – negotiating with the prosecutor to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence or dismissed charges.
While this may seem enticing to avoid trial, the risks of long-term consequences may outweigh short-term benefits. Any domestic violence conviction results in a permanent criminal record that can affect your job, housing, custody rights, and immigration status.
If plea bargaining, try to bargain for alternative programs or counseling instead of pleading to criminal charges. But, you need an experienced attorney to secure the best deal possible for your situation. Don’t let a prosecutor pressure you into accepting anything you’re uneasy about.
Pretrial Process if Pleading Not Guilty
If you enter a not-guilty plea, your case will head to trial. The pretrial process begins with discovery – gaining access to all the prosecutor’s evidence so your defense attorney can build your case. Your attorney will likely file motions to suppress any evidence gathered illegally, such as statements taken improperly or identification from biased lineups. Strong pretrial motions can get charges reduced or even dismissed before trial.
Building Your Defense in a DV Case
While every case is unique, some common defense strategies in domestic violence cases include:
- Self-defense – You reacted out of self-defense against violence initiated by the alleged victim. Your response was reasonable, and you tried to disengage.
- False accusations – Your accuser fabricated the allegations out of anger, jealousy, or as leverage in divorce or custody proceedings. Look for motives to lie and witnesses who can discredit them.
- Mistaken identity – You are accused but were misidentified as the abuser. Show you were elsewhere or the victim was impaired.
- Mental health issues – The alleged victim has mental health problems that cause them to misinterpret or falsely allege actions as abuse. Expert witnesses can attest to mental health diagnoses.
Working closely with your attorney to gather evidence and identify witnesses who can corroborate your version of events is crucial. You may use expert testimony from psychologists to support mental health defenses as well.
Trial and Sentencing If Found Guilty
Domestic violence trials involve the prosecutor presenting witnesses and evidence to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As the defendant, you are presumed innocent and can choose to remain silent and make the prosecution prove their case.
If the verdict is guilty, the judge will move on to sentencing. Possible sentences for first-time offenses with minimal injuries can include counseling programs, community service, probation, fines, or days in county jail. Victim impact statements also weigh on the judge’s sentencing decision.
First-Time Offender Programs in California
Some alternative programs you may qualify for as a first-time offender:
- Deferred entry of judgment – Charges dismissed after completing counseling and staying out of trouble for a period of time.
- Batterer’s intervention program – Attending classes over 52 weeks focused on taking accountability and permanently changing abusive behaviors.
- Anger management classes – Completing certified classes to control emotions and destructive reactions.
These can avoid jail time and the long-term effects of a permanent conviction. Your attorney can advise if you are eligible.
Long-Term Consequences of a Domestic Violence Conviction
While first-time penalties may seem minor at first glance, a domestic violence conviction leaves a permanent criminal record that can severely limit future opportunities such as:
- Difficulty finding employment, especially in healthcare, education, financial services, and other regulated industries that require background checks.
- Potential loss of professional licensing required for many jobs.
- Possible eviction from public housing programs.
- Custody and visitation limitations if the victim is your child’s other parent.
- Immigration consequences like deportation if you are not a U.S. citizen.
- Enhanced sentencing if convicted again in the future.
- The stigma of a domestic violence conviction can follow you for life.
An experienced attorney will advise you on ways to avoid a criminal record and keep your future options open.
Frequently Asked Questions About First-Offense Domestic Violence
What are the penalties for a first-time domestic violence charge in California?
For a first-offense misdemeanor domestic battery conviction in California, possible penalties include fines up to $1,000, up to 1 year in county jail, domestic violence classes, restraining orders, probation, and other court-ordered terms. Aggravating factors like injuries or weapons may increase penalties. Benefits like deferred entry of judgment are available in some cases.
How does domestic violence affect child custody in California?
Domestic violence convictions can negatively impact child custody and visitation rights in California family courts. However, the impact ranges case by case based on severity and circumstances. Courts recognize that even first offenses endanger children. Getting charges reduced or dismissed through plea bargains or private settlements may help preserve custody rights.
Getting Legal Help for Your First Domestic Violence Charge
If you are facing first-time domestic violence allegations, the most important step you can take is to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney as early as possible. Do not go through this fight alone.
Look for lawyers with proven experience handling domestic violence cases in California courts. Interview a few options and make sure you have an attorney who will be a tireless advocate on your side each step of the way. Ask about their track record of getting charges reduced or dismissed for clients in similar situations.
The costs of skilled legal representation are far outweighed by the severe lifelong consequences of a conviction. And in many cases, charges can be reduced or dismissed with the right legal defense.
We know you feel overwhelmed and scared about what comes next. But we are here to walk you through each step of the process and apply an aggressive defense strategy for a favorable outcome for your case. Don’t hesitate to reach out and set up a confidential case evaluation. We will listen to your side and develop a legal strategy customized to your unique circumstances.
Don’t Go Through This Fight Alone – Let Kolacia Law Advocate For You
If you or a loved one are facing first-time domestic violence charges, having an experienced legal advocate on your side can make all the difference. The California criminal defense attorneys at Kolacia Law have successfully represented hundreds of clients facing allegations just like yours.
We know the system, the courts, and how to build strong cases. Just one phone call to our office can start putting an aggressive legal strategy for your charges into motion. Don’t leave your fate or freedom in the hands of chance.
Call Kolacia Law now for a free case review.